Joëlle was concentrating, keeping our ship within the mothership’s slipstream. We’d been in slipspace for about twenty minutes, and Jonathan had been conducting more thorough scans of the mothership, trying to glean some more information. In order to do a complete scan however, we’d be emitting signals that would be easy for the mothership to notice, so we were fairly limited. Nevertheless, over that time we managed to take very detailed scans of its energy emissions, which were certainly unique.
I was sipping on some root beer from the Firebrand’s food synthesizers- a set of boxy metal machines against the wall in the kitchen- to calm my nerves, and K had her own drink of some kind. Unfortunately it wasn’t really working; my whole body felt tense.
“They knew where they were going,” I said at last.
K took a sip of her drink and looked at me. “Well, we know where they’re going too.”
“Yeah,” said Joëlle, “to the heart of the nebula. We should be arriving soon-”
Joëlle’s eyes filled with fear as the mothership slightly changed course and suddenly we were speeding towards the hull. My heart jumped and I clutched my seat.
She wasn’t fast enough.
We all lurched forward, root beer spilling all over the cockpit. With a crash, the lights flickered, and we all held onto our seats as tightly as possible as the Firebrand somersaulted away from the hull.
With a thunderous shake, we tore out of the slipstream and tumbled through space at an incredible velocity. The view outside the window was incredibly dizzying as stars and red gas from the nebula whipped around us. Joëlle began trying to stabilize the ship. The spinning slowed, until finally we were flying straight. We all took a moment to catch our breaths.
“I told you,” said Jonathan, shaking his head. “We shouldn’t have tried that.”
“Everything’s fine,” I said, trying to calm him down, though my heart was racing.
Joëlle looked at me in annoyance. “No, not everything is fine, Osax.” She pointed to a flashing light on her dashboard. “Our oxygen recycler is having some kind of malfunction.”
Jonathan gulped. K stood up and leaned over Jonathan to get a look at the display. “What do you mean it’s got a malfunction?!”
Jonathan was shaking his head. “We need to turn back, and find someplace to repair the ship.”
“Or what?” K asked.
“Or we’re going to die.”
I was breathing heavily. “How much time do we have? Where’s the nearest base? Or refuelling station? Or planet with a breathable atmosphere?”
Joëlle was examining her instruments. “Well, it’s hard to tell how much time we have…”
“Until what?” asked K. “What’s going to happen?”
Jonathan turned to her. “Our oxygen recycler is what keeps the air within the ship breathable. If it’s not working properly, it’s only a matter of time before we all suffocate.” He sounded surprisingly calm.
K on the other hand, was beginning to quiver. “We’re going to suffocate?!”
Joëlle glanced between us. “Everyone, try not to get too agitated. We’ll have more time if we expend as little oxygen as possible.” She met my gaze. “Osax, it’s okay. Try not to hyperventilate.”
I tried to slow my breathing. K started shaking her limbs and jumping up and down a bit, trying to calm down. Joëlle put a hand on her arm for a second.
“K,” she said, “every time you move a muscle, you’re spending some oxygen. You should sit down, and just try to relax.”
She shook her head in disbelief. “Try to relax?”
Jonathan calmly pivoted in his chair toward her. “You’ll be alright, K.” His organic eye was lined with concern, contrasting his cybernetic one, which stared blankly.
K looked to me, fear in her eyes. I tried to speak, to comfort her, but felt frozen. I gazed out at the red nebula which enclosed around us. There was a line through the nebula as though a giant arrow had pierced a cloud of smoke. Already the gas was shifting and slowly the line was fading away.
“Look, we can still track the mothership,” I said, pointing at the physical trail it had left behind.
K sat down slowly and stared at me, shocked. “Aren’t you concerned about the whole dying thing? Are you ever concerned about that?”
Joëlle looked up from her instruments. “It looks like we have at least a day or two of air, between the four of us, as long as the recycler keeps working at its current capacity, and we keep our cardio levels low.”
K sighed in relief. “Well, that’s not too bad.”
“I guess not,” said Joëlle. “But, the nearest planet that is confirmed to be breathable is over one and a half days travel in slipspace.”
Jonathan remained silent. K spoke up. “Well, I don’t want to cut it too close.”
“Neither do I,” I said. “What planet is it? I’m not even sure where we are in space right now.”
“Actually,” said Joëlle hesitantly, looking up from the navi-computer, “it’s Astraloth.”
I blinked. I hadn’t been home in many months, and I wasn’t expecting to see it again any time soon. The nebula we were in must have been the Thala nebula, which was visible at times from Astraloth, during the night. My thoughts turned to my mother, and my home on Astraloth, and the Great Temple.
“Oh,” I said. “Well, that… is good news.”
“That’s great!” said K, “There’s no question that they’ll be able, and willing, to help us then.”
“Yes…” said Joëlle. Her eyes narrowed, and she took one more look at her instruments before piloting the ship toward the fading arrow in the nebula.
“What- What are you doing?” asked Jonathan, suddenly agitated. “We should be docking somewhere, and repairing. We shouldn’t be putting our lives in unnecessary danger!”
“Yeah, Jonathan has a point,” said K.
“The nebula interferes with scanners, which means we wouldn’t normally be able to track or find anything in here. We’re lucky that we can follow this trail visually since it’s so fresh,” said Joëlle.
“But, we should go to Astraloth!” Jonathan furrowed his brow. “This makes no sense; you’re putting all our lives at risk!”
I took a deep breath. “We still don’t know what the mothership was looking for. It makes sense to follow it for a while, to see if it was heading somewhere in the nebula, for a specific reason.”
Joëlle said, “Osax, I actually agree with you. That’s why I’m taking us in.”
Jonathan shook his head violently. “I must protest!”
Joëlle looked at him. “I’m going to allow us a four hour margin of error, which doesn’t give us much time to track the mothership. But I have a feeling they were already close to their destination when we got ejected from the slipstream; we shouldn’t be far behind.”
“No,” said Jonathan. “I won’t allow this.”
Joëlle just glared at him. K and I exchanged glances.
“Shut up, Jonathan, it’s a good compromise,” said K.
He turned to face her, shaking his head. “I’m trying to look out for all of us, you especially, K.”
“Yeah, I know. But it’s okay. I’m good now. I’m okay with this.” She nodded at him, and held a confident expression on her face. “Besides,” she added, “I didn’t ask for your help, or your sympathy.”
We all remained silent.
Jonathan stood up. “I’m going to rest in my room for a moment, clear my head.” He walked slowly out of the room.
Some time later, we emerged from the red cloud into a wide clearing in the nebula. The mothership was hovering, like a menacing black spider suspended on a web. Just in front of it was another structure, and I gazed in disbelief.
The structure appeared to be a ship. It was massive, grey, and surrounded by construction supports. It looked strikingly similar to the Shade Beam battlecruiser concept design. Could it have been that the TAU were already constructing the weapon in secret?
“That looks kind of like the concept for the Shade Beam super weapon,” I said. Joëlle nodded, her mouth hanging open in surprise.
K leaned forward. “Wait a minute.” She started pointing out the window to the ominous meeting of the two massive ships. “You’re telling me the TAU was already constructing the big version of the gun?”
“I…” Joëlle couldn’t find the words.
We drifted closer toward the ships. Duhrnan’s ship had sent out smaller vessels which were cutting off the construction clamps on the device.
“If they’ve been constructing it, it would make sense to hide it in a nebula,” I said, hesitating. “But, why would they build it here, so close to Astraloth… unless-”
“No,” said Joëlle, shaking her head. “No, they wouldn’t. The TAU would never…”
K had a thoughtful expression. “But, they might.” She looked to me and Joëlle. “What makes them exempt from evil?”
I lowered my ears, and frowned. “No, it doesn’t make sense. Why aren’t there any TAU ships protecting this?”
I gazed out the windows, mesmerized as the construction clamps drifted away from the Shade Beam, and the mothership slowly approached it, clamping its limbs down onto the cruiser.
“I’m picking up another large object behind the Shade Beam on the scanner…” said Joëlle, glancing down to the control console.
My eyes were darting around the cockpit. “Another ship?”
K got up and came over to the scanner, inspecting it. “Huh, looks like a blob. Not very helpful.”
Joëlle sighed. “The Shade Beam is too thick for the scans to get an accurate reading from this angle, especially if we keep our cloaking device active. Which, we definitely should.”
“We need to get around the Shade Beam, get a better look at that object.” If it was indeed a ship, who’s ship would it be? A TAU ship that had surrendered to the threat of the mothership? Or perhaps another valicorr ship that had been waiting here. It couldn’t have been a skyther ship…
Joëlle was about to take us in closer, when the oxygen recycler’s emergency light began flashing and beeping at a faster rate.
K spoke up, breathing quickly. “Is that- Did the recycler just get worse?”
Joëlle nodded slowly. “Apparently. We don’t have time to check this out.”
“No!” I said, standing up. “But we’re so close to getting another clue about what’s happening!”
Joëlle gave me a sidelong glance. “We’re also close to dying, Osax. I’m setting a course for Astraloth.”
My ears drooped as we entered slipspace once more. I was less concerned about our oxygen running out, and more dismayed at this new unsolved mystery of the object which was just out of sight behind the Shade Beam. Not to mention, Duhrnan clearly had a plan, and it looked like it was so far unfolding unhindered. I shuddered.
Everyone was breathing slowly, and trying not to speak too much. That was good, it meant we’d be saving more oxygen. I was glad Jonathan had decided to get some rest and calm down. I hoped he was asleep, and would wake up to find us well on our way to a safe haven. K seemed to be deep in thought, her eyes focused on a random point on the controls. And Joëlle just sat back in her chair and let out a big breath after engaging the slipspace drive. It was on autopilot, so we could all just relax. I thought about getting some sleep, but knew I wouldn’t be able to. Either way, I decided to head to my room.
Jonathan was walking into the kitchen from the back of the ship as I entered it. He gave me a startled look, before exhaling.
“How are you doing, Jonathan?”
He looked around. “I was just pacing, trying to calm down.”
“You shouldn’t be moving more than necessary,” I said.
He nodded. “Right. Sorry, Osax.”
I raised my hand to calm him down. “It’s alright. We’ve set a course for Astraloth now. The oxygen recycler is in worse shape than we thought, but I think we’ll make it if we all just try to relax.”
He scrunched up his face. “Alright. Good. Thank you.”
“My mother will surely help us out and provide a nice place to regroup and collect our thoughts.”
“Ah, yes. Queen Suranos...” he said, thoughtfully.
I approached the bedroom, but he spoke up again.
“Excuse me Osax, this may not be a good time, but I was wondering…”
“Yes?” My ears lifted slowly. I could guess what he was going to ask.
“They say Queen Suranos is a powerful psychic. That she has the power to sense thoughts or emotions, and move things with her mind. Is that true? Can your mother… really do that?”
I nodded. “Psionics are rare in humans-”
“Practically non-existent,” Jonathan interrupted.
“...but less so in skythers. Still, my mother… is definitely the most famous psychic of this cycle.”
“Is it hereditary?”
My ears drooped. “Can we continue this conversation later?” I asked. “How about when we’re not worried about our oxygen use.” I sounded more agitated than I intended to.
He shut his mouth and nodded.
“Alright.” I left the room.
I lay down on the bed, and folded my hands over my chest. I couldn’t sleep, but resting my body felt good.